These are two fully-grown black waiters, living in a racially divided South Africa of apartheid while they toil for 17-year-old white prep-schooler Hally's parents at the shabby St. George's Park Tea Room in the Port Elizabeth of 1950.
Willie is the younger, affable and unflappable one, fast to flash an easy smile to hide his darker side. Sam is the older and wiser one, a father figure for both Willie and Hally in the eight years they've been together; with a little respect for ourselves and others, he contends, we can "dance life like champions." This idyllic picture quickly curdles when Hally learns his real-life father — a bigoted drunk — is coming home from the hospital, and he lashes out at the first father he can find: Sam. The upshot, said the Times's Frank Rich of "MASTER HAROLD"...and the boys when it opened at the Lyceum on May 4, 1982, was "an unstoppable... outpouring of ugliness, in which Hally humiliates the black man he loves by... mocking their years of shared secrets and spitting in his face."
The play earned Tony nominations for its author and director, Athol Fugard, and there were awards for Danny Glover (a Theatre World Award for his Broadway debut as Willie) and Zakes Mokae's Sam (the Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Play). But that was then, and this is now. And a lot can happen in one and twenty years. Apartheid can end. Nelson Mandela can be freed. Glover can even play Mandela in a TV movie. And two-thirds of the first cast can return to the scene of the "crime." Lonny Price (Hally in 1982) is now directing the play's first Broadway revival. And Glover has graduated to Sam status, having grown from gregarious to grave.
He has also grown considerably in star power since he went Hollywood. Now, with over 40 films and five NAACP Image Awards, he is back on Broadway in the same play — albeit with a more mature mien/role.
The only other New York theatre acting Glover had done, Off-Broadway two years before, was another Fugard — The Blood Knot — and that was the one that convinced the young economics major to give up a career in community development in San Francisco and study acting across town at the American Conservatory Theater. "I found a voice in Blood Knot. Fugard became a voice for me as an actor," he says. He exercised that voice in "Boesman and Lena" on film, A Lesson From Aloes at Steppenwolf, The Island and Sizwe Banzi Is Dead in rep. Glover feels "MASTER HAROLD"...and the boys still speaks powerfully, even with the world in a different place. "Since it has a great deal of universality," he reasons, "it could say some of the same things, even though it specifically refers to apartheid. It doesn't mention that word, but it lays out a certain degree of relationships — dominant and subordinate — and that's what the play is about. Those exist. You can translate that in terms of what's happening in Iraq. This country has become an empire, and those relationships it has formed with other countries are subordinate because we're the dominant power. There will always be those relationships unless we begin to talk about it in terms of what our agendas are as people and not in terms of what our national agendas are. Certainly man has had enough time to find ways of relating to each other. At every point in man's history, some statement is made. Slavery is abolished, and that sets another form of relationships. Now, does the play say that? Perhaps it does...."